The Travel Issue: South Africa in February
Saturday 02 February 2008
Years ago, when I was still trying to save the world (rather than just writing about other people who do) I worked on a charity project in Namibia with this really annoying bloke called Jon, who had this really annoying phrase.
"TIAB," Jon would say. It was his cure-all for anyone's grumbles. If you had sand in your food, 85 mosquito bites on the same eyeball, Ebola or a black mamba in your sleeping bag, that's what he would always say. "Hey, dude: TIAB," sometimes accompanied by a "soothing" hand on the shoulder. Rage! The thought still makes me twist about in my chair with irritation, eight years later.
Anyway, TIAB stands for "This Is Africa, Baby" and although Jon was an annoying twit, his philosophy was sound: take Africa as it is (wild, hot, disorganised) rather than how you might like it to be (tidy, grateful, passive).
It's a philosophy that CC Africa, top-end safari-lodge company, takes seriously. In 1992 the company bought an area of northern South Africa called Phinda and let it revert from pineapple farms and pasture back to rambling bush. They re-introduced game and then built a handful of luxury lodges; 80 per cent of their staff (some of whom are HIV positive) come from local villages and are paid a decent wage and have access to healthcare. Their conservation programmes are copied by game reserves all over Africa and, in partnership with the charity Africa Foundation, part-fund the building of classrooms, medical and technology centres. It's all working so well that they have expanded all over Africa and are moving into India.
They really do do all this good stuff; it's not just window dressing and clever talk. I won't go on about it because I've only got 800 words and I want to talk about elephants and monkeys, but the contribution CC Africa makes to their society and to conservation is good, it's wholehearted and it's working. Most important, they let Africa be Africa.
It's a jolly good thing that it's all so humanitarian and responsible because otherwise I don't see how one could stay at one of these lodges without feeling like a fat, white, colonial rapist. Huge spotless rooms with beds big enough to sleep six, both an indoor and outdoor shower, a plunge pool and a private veranda, overlooked by only the sky.
And then there are the animals. The lodge has a policy that no guest should venture out alone after dark. "Yeah, yeah," I scoffed, as if I were Crocodile Dundee. But my bravado crumbled to dust when I got to my room and found three large, curly-horned shaggy deer-type creatures (whose proper name I now forget) two feet from the French doors, a monitor lizard the size of a Labrador sunning himself on the veranda and a monkey on the windowsill staring at me, picking at its bottom. I carelessly left my door open the first afternoon as I snoozed and woke up to find three monkeys passing round my bar snacks, the expedition no doubt led by the bottom-picker. Apart from the fence surrounding the reserve – to stop the elephants trampling on people's houses – there are no barriers around the lodges to prevent, like, leopards coming into your room if you leave the door open. Luckily I'd learnt my lesson with the monkeys. But my point is that no, I didn't go out after dark by myself.
Eight hours of game driving a day might sound excessive, but there's not a great deal to do in the bush apart from read, sleep and drink. The first drive leaves at five, returning for breakfast at nine and the second drive leaves at four, returning for dinner at eight. The rangers – vast, white-blond Afrikaaners – know the reserve like I know my local branch of Oddbins. "Yar we just un time for elliphunts," said Philip, my ranger, one evening at about 6pm as we pulled up next to an empty dam. "They cam to drrrink abart now." We turned to look and on cue not one but two herds of elephants came kicking through the trees, swayed down to the edge of the water and started to drink. And then they went for a swim. They rolled around and waved their feet and trunks in the air in a way I've never even seen on TV. How did Philip know? Is he really that in tune with the animals? Or was it just a guess? Whatever, it was awesome.
A four-night package including return flights with British Airways, transfers and domestic flights, on an all-inclusive basis, costs from £1850 per person. Exsus Travel, 020-7292 5050, www.exsus.com
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